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Complete College America is on a crusade to improve remedial education, which it says is hopelessly broken and failing students. The group has had big successes in a campaign that is gathering steam, but some community college leaders say its rhetoric and proposed fixes go too far.

That dissent is usually voiced privately. The two-year-old Complete College America is a savvy political operator, having persuaded lawmakers in 30 states to sign on to its completion goals. And the group receives support, both fiscal and, sometimes, on policy, from both the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations.

“People assume that they have powerful connections,” said Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, and “avoid picking a fight with them.”

However, Boylan and another top expert on remediation have publicly challenged some aspects of Complete College America’s campaign, which pushes for students to be placed into credit-bearing courses with extra academic support, rather than in the typically noncredit remedial pathway. They argue that research remains somewhat flimsy on how to improve remediation, and said the group’s support for a proposal to completely eliminate remedial education in Connecticut was a mistake.

“Given the paucity of knowledge about what works for remedial students,” wrote Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, in an opinion piece published in the Hartford Courant, “Connecticut’s bill is too inflexible.”

Community college leaders grumble that the promise of additional academic support under the plan by Complete College America is flimsy at best, given that states are much more likely to pass limits on remediation than to provide funds for tutoring or other aids for remedial students. And still others don't appreciate that the group sometimes gets the attention of lawmakers and business leaders with rhetoric that seems designed to embarrass colleges, particularly two-year institutions. For example, a business group in Texas paid for billboards mocking graduation rates of two community colleges after meeting with Complete College America.

The bill in Connecticut originally called for all students with remedial needs at the state’s community colleges and public universities to be placed in regular, credit-bearing courses. But the final version of the legislation, signed into law earlier this month, allowed for one semester of noncredit remedial courses.

“I like where they landed in Connecticut." -- Jamie Merisotis, CEO and president of the Lumina Foundation

Complete College America is unapologetic about driving a hard line, and predicts it will succeed in getting more statewide policies passed.

“Remediation doesn’t work,” said Stan Jones, the group’s founder and president. “We need to stop doing it.”

More Nuance

There are signs, however, that Complete College America has softened its approach a bit, and is sticking mostly to broader policy suggestions that allow for more flexible decision-making at the institutional level – a shift some community college leaders said they appreciate. And Jones acknowledged that his group’s tack was evolving.

“You are going to see more of a nuanced approach,” he said. For example, he points to other, less prescriptive state policies the group has helped push through, like a Missouri bill, adopted earlier this month, that requires public institutions to “replicate best practices” on remediation, but leaves those calls to the colleges and statewide governing board.

Complete College America’s overarching goal is to get more students to graduation. And some of its powerful backers are standing by the group’s aggressive push on remediation, which is a key stumbling block on college completion.

The Lumina Foundation, for example, agrees with the group’s argument that more remedial students should be moved to “co-located” courses where they receive credit and work alongside non-remedial students, while receiving "just-in-time tutoring."

“I’m not ready to discard the current noncredit system,” said Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s CEO and president. “But I think more than marginal efforts should be tried” to improve remediation.

Merisotis said the original proposal in Connecticut was too absolute. But he supported the final bill, despite a backlash by some community college leaders and faculty members.

“Some of the reaction to it may have been misinformed,” he said. “I like where they landed in Connecticut.”

A Complex Problem

Nobody argues that remedial education is working well across higher education. Only one in four students in remedial classes will eventually earn a degree from a community college or transfer to a four-year college, according to research conducted by Bailey.

But there are multiple factors behind those low numbers, and little agreement on how to bring them up. For example, Boylan and other experts often note that students who place into remedial courses typically arrive with more risk factors, like lower incomes or being the first members of their family to go to college. As a result, they face long odds even in high-quality approaches to remediation.

“Remedial courses are far more complex than can be resolved by the things they recommend,” Boylan said of Complete College America. However, he agrees that remediation needs reforming, and that the group has proposed a “number of good ideas.”

The group made a splash with a report it released in April, dubbed “Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere.” Filled with eye-catching graphics and data, like the statistic showing that only 1 in 10 community college students who place into remediation will graduate in three years, the report landed plenty of media coverage. But the research could be used by politicians who are just looking for an excuse to cut budgets, some worried. The tone also contrasts with that of other completion-oriented groups, like Achieving the Dream, which hews more to the "let's improve together" approach.

“It’s when you begin to use this as a solution to everything that it begins to fall apart." -- Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education

Complete College America also hosts “remediation institutes” around the country for state lawmakers and higher education-types, including one held in Baltimore earlier this month. Beth Bye, a Democratic state senator in Connecticut, introduced the remedial reform bill after attending one of those institutes, according to Jones.

“We’re trying to educate a lot of people,” said Jones, who worked for 30 years on higher education as a legislator, gubernatorial adviser and commissioner of higher education, all in Indiana.

Boylan and Bailey, however, caution against making too many strong conclusions based on existing research about remediation.

For example, the Community College Research Center recently released two studies that found too many students being placed into remedial courses, many of whom could pass credit-bearing college courses. Those studies have been widely cited, including by proponents of the Connecticut bill. But while Bailey wrote that the research suggests some students with higher-level skills could benefit from enrolling in college-level classes, “it is far from clear, however, that one semester of instruction is adequate to prepare students with very weak skills for a college level course, even with additional supports.”

Boylan said abolishing remedial courses for co-location and other one-size-fits-all policies won’t work. And the research cited by Complete College America doesn't make a slam-dunk case that remediation itself is broken, he wrote in this publication, given conflicting and inconclusive findings.

“It’s when you begin to use this as a solution to everything that it begins to fall apart,” he said.

For his part, Jones agreed that some caution is required with state policies on remediation. In addition to Missouri, he praised multifaceted policy fixes in Colorado, including a program that enrolls eighth graders in a remedial math sequence, giving them five years to complete and bypass remediation in the state’s public colleges.

Jones said his group does not, however, support recently passed legislation in Ohio, which will withdraw funding for remediation in public, four-year institutions, pushing students with remedial needs toward community colleges. That policy does not address the underlying problem, he said.

Complete College America is working with lawmakers in several other states on remediation, Jones said, which will remain a key priority. He pointed to movement in Louisiana and Tennessee, among other states. The group’s hope is to create state policies that allow public institutions to ramp up better models of remediation at large scale. Because despite some of the uncertainty about what approach to remediation works best, Jones said the status quo is not acceptable.

“It’s very clear that that we’re doing right now is not working,” he said.

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